NASA and Google are announcing a 'major discovery' about exoplanets -- here's what it probably is

ESO/NASAAn artist’s rendering of an extrasolar planet.
  • NASA is announcing a new discovery on Thursday at 1 p.m. ET.
  • Astronomers who study Kepler exoplanet data and an engineer from Google Brain are involved in the announcement.
  • Documents shared by NASA Watch describe a method for using Google’s artificial intelligence algorithms to identify planets in Kepler space telescope data.
  • It’s possible the space agency might announce more Earth-size planets or planet candidates found using the method.

NASA and Google are announcing a “major discovery” using data from the space agency’s Kepler spacecraft this afternoon.

Kepler, a space telescope that trails Earth in orbit around the sun, has stared down 145,000 sun-like stars over the years, looking for signs of distant planets. NASA’s most recent analysis of Kepler data confirmed 219 new worlds in the more than 4,000 candidatesKepler has turned up in the past eight years. This moved the space agency’s total tally to 2,335 confirmed exoplanets – 10 of which may be rocky, Earth-size, and possibly habitable to alien life.

“The discovery was made by researchers using machine learning from Google. Machine learning is an approach to artificial intelligence, and demonstrates new ways of analysing Kepler data,” NASA wrote in a cryptic advisory for a media teleconference about the new findings.

Participants in the event – scheduled on Thursday at 1 p.m. ET – include Christopher Shallue, a software engineer who works on the artificial intelligence project Google Brain, and Andrew Vanderburg, an astronomer and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Texas at Austin.

But the three institutions involved in the announcement (NASA, Google, and UT Austin) have declined to share any information ahead of the briefing. In its press release about the teleconference, UT Austin also said the announcement will be a “major discovery“.

What might it be?

Andrew vanderburg kepler data slide deck nasaAndrew Vanderburg, UT Austin/CaltechA slide from astronomer Andrew Vanderburg’s Nov. 9 presentation.

Keith Cowing, a former NASA employee who runs NASAWatch.com, has dug up a few interesting studies and presentations since the space agency announced its secretive briefing.

The materials presented by Cowing include a slide deck (PDF) by Vanderburg published on Nov. 9, 2017 that describes a method to take somewhat unreliable Kepler exoplanet data and use artificial intelligence to boost the quality of signal. Google’s engineer, Shallue, is noted as a key member of the work described. From the presentation:

“Kepler is incomplete and unreliable for Earth-sized planets in Earth-like orbits.

Our Approach

1. Increase sensitivity (and therefore completeness) by allowing weaker signals to be considered as planet candidates, at the cost of a higher false positive rate. 2. Use deep learning to more effectively distinguish real signals from false alarms and false positives, keeping reliability high.”

Thus it stands to reason that NASA will announce the discovery of even more confirmed Earth-size exoplanets, or at least a better method of pulling them out of previously unreliable data. That new method may be similar to the way Google’s artificial intelligence algorithms can identify faces, words, objects, and more in images.

Kepler is running out of fuel to make observations, and its sensors are obsolete by more than a decade at this point. If new candidates or confirmed planets are announced, this could make for an even more thorough list of objects that NASA could target in the future – ideally with powerful new space observatories that it plans to launch, including the James Webb Space Telescope and the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS.

NASA hasn’t stated any plans to air the briefing on NASA TV, but it does intend to share the event and accompanying images and video via its NASA Live page. The public can also ask questions on Twitter via the #askNASA hashtag.

As we learn more during and after the briefing, as we’ll update this with any information we get.

NOW WATCH: Briefing videos

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